Crashburn Roundtable: Hernandez, Gomez, and Surprising Bats
It’s the second week of the rejuvenated Crashburn Roundtable feature, and today, we focus on the future of Phillies’ second baseman Cesar Hernandez, current (maybe former?) closer Jeanmar Gomez, and two young players who have been surprisingly productive offensive contributors in 2016. Included here are contributors Michael Schickling, Brad Engler, Dave Tomar, and Timothy Guenther.
Second base is seen as something of black hole on the Phillies, but advanced metrics actually like Cesar Hernandez. He’s performed at a league-average or better rate (per 600 PA) over the last two seasons as evaluated by each of the three major strains of WAR. How much faith should the team have in Hernandez moving forward?
Michael Schickling: I actually think he could have an integral role on the next great Phillies team, though not as the second baseman. He’s increased his walk rate and ISO each year he’s been in the league. However, the defensive metrics love him so much this year, but haven’t in years prior, so I would take those with a grain of salt. In my world, his ideal role on the Phillies is a shape-shifting, move-all-over-the-field, jack-of-all-trades in the vein of Ben Zobrist – but less good, as there’s only one Ben Zobrist. That type of player is coveted in today’s MLB, and having our own Ben Zobrist-lite to spell the starters when they’re feeling sore seems like an ideal scenario. On average, MLB teams play about six games a week. If you get Hernandez a start in left field, center field, shortstop, second base, and third base every week, then he’ll get five starts a week, and so will all the regular starters like Herrera, Franco, and Crawford. I know it’s not that simple, but if Cesar can do it, it could help keep all our young studs fresh for the whole season. Baseball’s a grind y’all, and Cesar loves to grind all over the diamond. I say we let him.
Brad Engler: None. His OBP is a shell game. A magic show. It’s prestidigitation – real Jon Dorenbos stuff happening there. He has a good eye, obviously, but I don’t know why pitchers don’t just throw him strikes. He isn’t going to hit it out often, and he’ll make baserunning mistakes enough to turn a bunch of his hits into outs anyway – he’s 17/28 stealing this year. That’s a mess. Someday, opposing pitchers will feed him nothing but strikes, he’ll hit an empty .305 with an OBP around .320, and his value will collapse like a wedding cake in an earthquake.
Dave Tomar: Faith isn’t necessarily the word I’d use. Perhaps acceptance. Hernandez just isn’t all that exciting a player. Indeed, this year has probably given us a good look at Cesar’s ceiling. As long as you’re not looking for power or overwhelming speed, he gets on base. In fact, he is tied with Odubel for a team-leading .361 OBP at the time of writing. With the worst collective OBP in the majors this year, the Phillies can’t really afford to take Cesar’s skill set for granted.
Timothy Guenther: Hernandez gets a bad rap because he has the baserunning instincts of a five year old, although even that might be an optimistic assessment. Also, he’s not Chase Utley. If you get past those unfortunate realities, you might see that he is actually a decent baseball player. The organization is rightfully putting a focus on plate discipline and on-base percentage, and those are two areas that Hernandez excels. Despite the head-scratching mental gaffs, his raw speed makes him a net asset on the basepaths. And while defensive metrics are certainly suspect, Matt Klentak’s recent comments suggest the Phillies’ internal evaluations of his defense are also positive. It all makes for an average, yet unspectacular, baseball player. It might not be the type of core player you build your team around, but it’s a fine complementary piece to that core. Those don’t grow on trees.
Both Tommy Joseph (115 OPS+) and Cameron Rupp (101 OPS+) have surprised with their offensive performances this season. Are you more encouraged by one or the other? Does one have a long term role on the Phillies?
Schickling: Both Tommy Joseph and Cameron Rupp have been very pleasant surprises at the plate in 2016. They possess a similar profile, with a good amount of power being held back by a mediocre walk rate and too many strikeouts. They both also have had more success against left-handed pitchers than righties. The issue here is of defensive value. Joseph adds little-to-no defensive value as a first baseman, where hitters average a 108 wRC+. Rupp plays the more defensive-minded position, where catchers average an 87 wRC+. Rupp, therefore, is more valuable despite his inferior batting line, due to his ability to play the most difficult position on the diamond.
However, Joseph is still a rookie and has done enough to earn a chance to improve into an average-or-better first baseman next season. In 2017, he won’t have Ryan Howard around to face some of the righties and he’ll have to take that next step forward to become a long-term piece. Rupp has also earned himself a role on the 2017 Phillies with his play this year, probably as part of a timeshare with prospect Jorge Alfaro.
If I had to pick which one is more likely to be on the Phillies for the long haul, I’d say probably Rupp. There’s still a very good chance that Joseph never takes that step forward, which makes him more of a Darin Ruf 2.0 than a legitimate starting first baseman. With more and more roster spots being devoted to the bullpen, there just isn’t room on a roster for a decent hitter with negative defensive value. However, there will always be a roster spot for a solid defensive catcher who can hit at a league-average clip.
Engler: I’ve been a big fan of Cam Rupp for longer than has been reasonable. His 2016 has been about as good as I thought he would ever be, and I continue to harbor concerns about his big body holding up as he ages, (he just turned 28 – when I was 28 the moans had already turned into groans, and the aches were starting to become pains). I’d be content to see him shopped. Having said that, keeping him around as the incumbent for 2017 would hardly be unreasonable, and might force the two prospects in the pipeline to continue to step up their games, knowing they have an established guy ahead of them that can’t be knocked down the depth chart with anything less than a big league performance.
Tomar: There’s a lot to like about both of them. We said our tearful goodbyes to Carlos Ruiz, and—conflicted though we may be—we salute Ryan Howard on his way out. The idea of settling into a few decidedly more affordable long-term options at catcher and 1B is appealing. Joseph’s rookie performance certainly adds to the appeal. The banged-up 24-year-old entered Spring Training exposed to the Rule 5 draft. But he needed only 341 plate appearances to join Ryan Howard as just one of 6 Phillies to club more than 20 round-trippers in his rookie year. For those scoring at home, the other four were Scott Rolen, Willie Montanez, Larry Hisle, and Dick Allen. Pretty good company as long as you don’t do anything to piss off the irascible Mr. Allen.
Still, at the end of the day, if you have to choose between a power-hitting first baseman and a plus defensive catcher with occasional pop, you choose the scarcer commodity. Rupp seems like a good bet to stick around awhile, even if he cedes increased time to Alfaro next year. Young, strong and fairly effective at stewarding pitchers still learning the ropes, Rupp looks like a guy who will help this team grow. The Phillies have a solid history when it comes to pinning down reliable longterm backstops. May Rupp follow in the cleated footsteps of Ruiz, Lieberthal, Daulton, and Boone.
Guenther: There are 22 players in baseball this year that combined a league average contact rate with a HR/FB rate north of 18%. Tommy Joseph was one of those players. That combination of raw power and contact can’t be taught, and it can make for a dangerous middle-of-the-order hitter if everything clicks. Consider, of the 22 players in the aforementioned group, the median wRC+ is 135. Joseph still has some things to clean up, namely his ball and strike judgement, but he might have the highest ceiling bat of anyone on the team.
In the month of September, Jeanmar Gomez’s season ERA has ballooned from 2.97 to 4.35 as he’s faded down the stretch – what is his role on the 2017 Phillies?
Schickling: Through August 13 of this year, Jeanmar Gomez had a 2.52 ERA over 53.2 innings, but his peripherals were less impressive with a 37/14 K/BB and a 52.1% GB%. That’s not amazing, as it works out to a 3.33 FIP, but it is more than acceptable. Since that date, however, he’s absolutely imploded facing 70 batters over 13.2 innings and allowing 17 earned runs with only 9 Ks to 6 BBs. That’s… not ideal, and I think this graph says it best:
It’s possible that Gomez is hurt, though no one on the Phillies has said that. It’s also possible he’s fatigued, though no one on the Phillies has said that. He’s arbitration-eligible this season, and given his 37 saves, he’s likely due for a hefty raise. For a pitch-to-contact reliever without a real out pitch, the cost may be prohibitive. The last pitcher in Jeanmar’s situation (arbitration eligible, 30+ saves with no prior history of closing, ERA over 3.50) was Tyler Clippard in 2012, and he got a raise of $2.4 million. Tack on Gomez’ $1.4 million salary this year, and $3.8 million sounds like too much to pay a mediocre reliever. I think the Phillies would like to bring him back for a reasonable amount, but depending on what arbitration models predict for him, he may be a non-tender candidate.
Engler: There is no reason to move Jeanmar, as his value may be down after a bad couple months, and as there is no guarantee Hector Neris or anyone else on the club currently or in the high minors will thrive in the ninth inning. Gomez could be either the incumbent closer, or part of a committee approach, depending on how Pete and the front office see things. Were it me, I’d aim for the latter, with the opportunity for multiple young guys to get save opportunities, including Neris, Edubray Ramos, Joely Rodriguez, and maybe even Jimmy Cordero, if his arm is still attached – sadly, that’s an open question. Perhaps later in the year we could see opportunities for Nick Pivetta or Ricardo Pinto, if they decide to pull the plug on either of them as a starter. Seems to me like that should still be a full season away, however, and either guy could look like a serviceable big league starter mid-year next year if they perform well at AAA. (BTW, how amazing would it be for Pivetta to have more saves than Papelbon in 2017? Please baseball gods, smile on us!)
Tomar: Ideally, he’d bounce back to the role he had in 2015. As a middle reliever in 2015, he posted a 3.01 ERA and 3:1 K/BB ratio across 74.2 innings of work. He was pretty versatile as a situational pitcher. His versatility is also why he slotted in so well as closer without ever quite fitting the mold. The dark horse winner of closing honors in Spring Training, Gomez always seemed like a temporary solution. He worked his way to 37 saves this year, far more than anybody had a right to expect for a guy mostly pitching off-speed stuff to contact. Still, he never had a knockout pitch and logic caught up with him in a big way. In just the month-and-a-half since mid-August, his ERA ballooned from just over 2.50 to 4.35. In his last 7 appearances, he’s carrying a ghastly 15.43ERA/3.00 WHIP.
We’ve been driving a station wagon on a racetrack and now the wheels have come off. Gomez has never been an overwhelming pitcher but he has been reliable, even when crammed into the wrong inning. That reliability makes middle relief a comfortable fit. The guy also has 46 career starts under his belt so there’s long-inning relief value there as well. Gomez performed pretty well in 2016, all things considered. At the right post-arbitration price, that tenacity should be rewarded with a far more suitable role in next year’s bullpen.
Guenther: Gomez became the Phillies’ closer by default, and his success in that position can best be attributed to “well-timed mediocrity”. In the long-term, that’s not a strategy you want to depend on in high leverage situations. As a solid veteran reliever, Gomez has a place on the 2017 Phillies. But it should be in a lower leverage role.